When you visit a well-regarded cocktail bar, you expect to receive a great cocktail.
When you visit a great dive bar, you expect to receive an ice-cold beer and hearty shot. You can go to any number of establishments in most cities to receive all of the above. It’s the places that facilitate and foster the social experiences you crave that you’ll go back to repeatedly.
I come out believing there’s no tomorrow night, there wasn’t last night, there’s just tonight. And I have built up the skills to be able to provide, under the right conditions, a certain transcendent evening, hopefully, an evening you’ll remember when you go home. Not that you’ll just remember it was a good concert, but you’ll remember the possibilities the evening laid out in front of you…
That’s Bruce Springsteen effectively defining the difference between service and hospitality. He could go on stage every night and casually play a bunch of songs. He has certainly built up the catalog to do that. Or he can make the night something more:
The audience wants you to do two things. They want you to surprise them and make them feel at home, simultaneously.
As bartenders, we can treat each shift as nothing more than the task of making a bunch of drinks. We have large enough menus and compendiums to draw from. Or we can treat each shift the way Springsteen treats each show. With a determined intensity and an unbridled enthusiasm to give his guests more than they came for, to deliver an experience they’ll remember and want to have again. To make them feel alive, connected, and socially valuable. To make them feel like they did something much more meaningful than merely walk into a bar.
When you’re behind the bar, you’re as close to being the center of attention Bruce is night after night as you’re ever going to be. You’re on stage. You direct the theater of the bar. It’s exhilarating AF to do this dance amid the orderly chaos of guests staking their place at and around your bar.
I live to seamlessly seize these moments and make hospitality not something that happens in spurts, but as a narrative, I weave throughout my entire shift—guest after guest.
The cocktail is the garnish of the experience.
– Vincenzo Marianella
‘Exciting People and Exciting Yourself Into Some Higher State’
At the moment, we can’t practice hospitality the way we have and ultimately want to. However, we can use this time to think and prepare to be better at hospitality when things start to return to some semblance of normal. When bars come back online, many of our guests will crave social experiences and connectedness. They’ll absolutely require it more than ever before. Because that’s how we’re wired. Craft cocktail bars, dive bars, the neighborhood tavern—they’ll all play even more central roles in our communities than they did prior to this global pandemic.
There’s a lovely story about a guy seeing Bruce Springsteen in New Jersey, right after September 11. The guy yelled to Springsteen: “Bruce, we need you.” Shortly thereafter, The Boss responded with a 9/11-inspired album, The Rising, and some of the most intense and impassioned performances of his iconic career.
Bruce did more than merely comfort fans with his music. He brought them to another place socially and emotionally. It’s what people needed in the new world that post-dated 9/11. Bruce didn’t provide “a service” to people who bought tickets to his shows. He delivered his sweaty, three-and-a-half-hour version of transcendent hospitality.
As bartenders, I argue that we have always needed to treat each shift the way Springsteen approaches his live shows. But now, it’s non-negotiable. You have a role to play in people’s lives like you never have before. Now’s the time to take several pages out of Springsteen’s book and treat each moment you’re behind the bar as the most important moment in each and every one of your guests’ lives. They’ll get something out of it. And, after going through this unprecedented ordeal together, you absolutely will as well.
I searched out something that I needed to do. It’s a job that’s filled with ego and vanity and narcissism, and you need all those things to do it well. But you can’t let those things completely swamp you… You need all those things but in relative check… But you need those things, because you are driven by your needs out there – the raw hunger and the raw need of exciting people and exciting yourself into some higher state. People have pursued that throughout the history of civilization. It’s a strange job, and for a lot of people it’s a dangerous job. But those things are at the root of it.
– Bruce Springsteen from The New Yorker (2012)